Lung cancer spotlighted as prime target for new immunotherapies

Even before the ASCO meeting opened today, the industry has been abuzz about the breakthrough potential of new immunotherapies to restore immune attacks on cancers. In an analysis today, Reuters writes about the promise of the therapies beyond melanoma, where Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) Yervoy has already proved effective for a minority of patients.

Lung cancer, which is a top cause of cancer deaths, could be the next on the list of malignancies to fall prey to immunotherapies. Bristol-Myers and Roche ($RHHBY) have begun or planned late-stage studies of their closely watched immunotherapies for lung cancer. Bristol has launched two late-stage studies of its anti-PD-1 contender nivolumab in lung cancer, after reporting results from an early-stage study that the treatment extended survival one year in 43% patients with non-small cell lung cancer, CNBC noted in its own immunotherapy review. Bristol's late-stage plans include three studies in melanoma and one in kidney cancer.

Though a majority of patients fail to respond to the immunotherapies, Bristol-Myers, Roche and Merck ($MRK) have the potential to make meaningful progress in fighting solid tumors with their treatments. With current treatments such as Roche's Avastin and chemo, lung-cancer patients have a median survival of about a year before they succumb to the tumors, Reuters reported. More than 159,000 Americans are expected to die from lung cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. And some doctors are putting patients on experimental immunotherapies right away rather waiting until after they get approved treatments.

"Now we are starting to use immunotherapy drugs as first-line treatments," Dr. Scott Gettinger of Yale Cancer Center, told Reuters. "… I know what first-line chemotherapy can do for lung cancer, and it's not great."

Gettinger has lung-cancer patients who have been taking Bristol's nivolumab for three years, he told the news wire.

This year's ASCO meeting in Chicago is expected to offer a wealth of new data from trials of immunotherapies in the programmed death 1 pathway, which allows tumors to evade immune attacks. Stayed tuned for our ASCO coverage over the next several days for details and get more on the top experimental cancer drugs from our special report published on Thursday.

- see Reutersarticle
- and the report from CNBC

Special Report: Top 10 experimental cancer drugs - 2013